Narcissistic Transference

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Narcissistic transference is a post-Freudian term introduced by Heinz Kohut, in the context of his theory of narcissism, to refer to a group of clinical phenomena observed during analytic treatment.

For Freud himself, transference concerned the transposition of object relationships; transference and narcissism were such contrary ideas for him that the expression narcissistic transference would have been meaningless in his eyes: "Observation shows that sufferers from narcissistic neuroses have no capacity for transference or only insufficient residues of it" (1916-17a [1915-17], p. 447).

One of the first authors to take narcissism into account in the evolution of the treatment was Béla Grunberger, in 1956. Grunberger deemed narcissism one of the motors of the analytic cure, and this even among neurotics. Out of fidelity to Freud's thinking, he nevertheless refrained from using the term "narcissistic transference," and spoke only of a "narcissistic analytic relationship." In this context he described certain ploys on the part of the patient, as for example "using the analyst to create a double [or mirror] image of himself" or projecting his ideal ego onto the analyst, which would later be evoked by Heinz Kohut.

Kohut brought narcissism into relation not with the ego but with a broader and less limited entity, the self. At the same time he introduced the idea of a line of development of narcissism paralleling the development of object-cathexes and interacting with it. Narcissism and object-love were thus no longer in contradiction with each other, but complementary, and it became possible to speak meaningfully of narcissistic transferences.

In The Analysis of the Self (1971), Kohut describes several aspects of such transferences. "Mirror transferences" correspond to a remobilization of the idealized "grandiose self" and imply the following demand with respect to the other person: "I am perfect and need you to confirm it." A mirror transference easily gives rise to a feeling of boredom or impatience in the analyst, whose otherness it does not acknowledge. Such transferences are of three types (pp. 114-16). The most archaic is "merger transference," in which the patient strives for an omnipotent and tyrannical control over the analyst, who is experienced as an extension of the self. In an "alter-ego transference," the other is experienced as very similar to the grandiose self. Lastly, in the case of mirror transference "in the narrower sense," the analyst is experienced as a function serving the patient's needs. If the patient feels recognized, he will experience sensations of well-being associated with the restoration of his narcissism. An "idealizing transference" is defined by Kohut as the mobilization of an idealized and all-powerful parent imago (p. 37), and it is encapsulated in the sentence "You are perfect, but I am part of you"; it is correlated with a struggle against feelings of emptiness and powerlessness. Kohut's notion that certain people are cathected as parts of the self, integrated into the mental functioning of the patient himself, led him to speak of "self-objects" and to describe narcissistic transference as based on an idealized self-object.

Kohut's approach has been criticized on the grounds that it first relegated the instincts and the Oedipus complex to the background and then eliminated them completely.

Paul Denis

See also: Bipolar self; Self; Self-object; Self psychology; Sexualization.


Dessuant, Pierre. (1999). Béla Grunberger. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Freud, Sigmund. (1916-17a [1915-17]). Introductory lectures on psycho-analysis. SE, 15-16.

Grunberger, Béla. (1979 [1971]). Narcissism: Psychoanalytic essays (Joyce S. Diamanti, Trans.). New York: International Universities Press.

Kohut, Heinz. (1971). The analysis of the self. New York: International Universities Press.

Oppenheimer, Agnès. (1998). Heinz Kohut. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Further Reading

Cohen, D. W. (2002). Transference and countertransference in analysis of narcissism. Psychoanalytic Review, 89, 631-652.

Schwaber, Evelyn (1977). Understanding unfolding "narcissistic transference." International Review of Psychoanalysis, 4, 493-502.